By the mid-1960s, Peter Fonda was not a conventional “leading man” in Hollywood. As Playboy magazine reported, Fonda had established a “solid reputation as a dropout.” He had become outwardly nonconformist and grew his hair long, alienating the “establishment” film industry. Desirable acting work became scarce.
Through his friendships with members of the Byrds, Fonda visited The Beatles in their rented house in Benedict Canyon in Los Angeles in August, 1965. While John Lennon, Ringo Starr and George Harrison were under the influence of LSD, Lennon heard Fonda say, “I know what it’s like to be dead.” This phrase became the tag line for their song “She Said She Said“, which appeared in their groundbreaking Revolver (1966) album. In 1966, Fonda was arrested in the anti-war Sunset Strip riot which the Los Angeles Police Department ended forcefully. The band Buffalo Springfield protested the department’s handling of the incident in their song “For What it’s Worth.”
Fonda’s first counterculture-oriented film role was the lead character Heavenly Blues, a Hells Angels chapter president, in the Roger Corman-directed film The Wild Angels (1966). The Wild Angels is still remembered for Fonda’s “eulogy” delivered at the fiasco of a fallen Angel’s funeral service, which was sampled in the Primal Scream recording “Loaded” (1991), and in other rock songs. Then Fonda played the male lead character in Corman’s film The Trip (1967), a television commercial director experiencing the ambivalence and turmoil of divorce.
In 1968, Fonda produced Easy Rider, the classic film for which he is best known. Easy Rider is about two long-haired bikers traveling through the southwest and southern United States in a world of intolerance and violence. The Fonda character was the charismatic, laconic “Captain America”/Wyatt whose motorcycle jacket bore a large American flag across the back. Dennis Hopper played the garrulous “Billy.” Jack Nicholson was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his turn as George Hanson, an alcoholic civil rights lawyer who rides along. Fonda co-wrote Easy Rider with Terry Southern and Hopper, who directed.
Hopper filmed the cross-country road trip depicted in Easy Rider almost entirely on location, spending US$375,000.00, and released the film in 1969 to massive success. Robbie Robertson was so moved by an advance screening that he approached Fonda and tried to convince him to let him write a complete score, even though the film was nearly due for wide release. Fonda refused, using the Byrds’ song “Ballad of Easy Rider,” Dylan’s “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” sung by the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn. Fonda, Hopper and Southern were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. [WIKIPEDIA]
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